Renewables miss the climate change deadline

Part 2

8 March 2021

As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said, and John Kerry echoed in his recent statement, clean energy developments are not happening fast enough to cap global warming at 1.5 degrees. The world doesn’t have until 2050, but only 2030, to make significant long-term changes.

This is partly caused by what are considered renewable energy sources. In 2018, scientists rang the alarm when they realised that burning forests to generate heat and electricity was included in E.U. legislation as a zero-carbon-emission energy source. In reality, burning wood releases more carbon dioxide per unit of energy than burning gas, oil, or coal.

The idea was that as long as trees are replaced by young new trees, the net emissions would be zero. But carbon capture during the growth of new trees takes decades, while emissions of burning wood happen instantly.

About 60 percent of renewable energy usage in the E.U. comes from biomass, including burning wood. A new report was commissioned by the E.U. to investigate the impact of wood burning on biodiversity and the ecosystem at large.

The researchers found that around 20 percent more wood was actually used than what was reported. The researchers also stress that “the governance of bioenergy sustainability is characterised by uncertainty of consequences, diverging interests, conflicting knowledge claims and high stakes”.

The price of innovation

According to David Victor, Professor at the School of Global Policy and Strategy at the University of California, there are currently two obstacles to reaching decarbonisation: technology and business models.

About 10 sectors are responsible for 80 percent of emissions, including electricity generation, cars, buildings, shipping, agriculture, aviation, and steel. “In nearly every sector, the world isn’t far along in the technological revolutions needed for decarbonization [sic],” Victor writes.

Agriculture, for example, would benefit from engineered crops that capture carbon in their roots, buildings require new technologies that make it easier to retroactively fit efficient heating and air-conditioning systems, and electric cars require more experimentation in charging, Victor argues.

But according to Victor, all these new technologies fall flat unless they come with better business models. Real companies need to be incentivised to deploy new technologies, as opposed to known technologies, at scale.

Economy-wide incentives like carbon taxes and emission trading only boost the deployment of known technologies, he states. “What’s needed in most sectors is a more dynamic approach through which policies target the direction of innovation”.

Finance and technology are also two of the main obstacles to the development of clean energy in the ASEAN region, a recent report by the Asian Vision Institute and the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung finds. “Despite the progress being made, the plan for increased deployment of renewable energy is obstructed by numerous challenges, including financial, technological, regulatory, institutional, geographical, and human resource aspects,” the report reads.

Crisis upon crisis

In addition, the energy crisis is not isolated from the rest of the world. We’re experiencing a climate, freshwater, food, clean air, and biodiversity crisis all at once. The currently available technologies address the climate crisis to some extent but create problems for the other crises.

Solar requires massive amounts of land, wind farms may endanger migrating birds, biomass destroys forests, and green hydrogen won’t be cost-effective until 2030 (and its impact on sea life is to be seen). Thus, in addition to developing renewable energy sources, we need to revert the emissions that have already occurred.

This is not new information. Two years after the elation of the Paris Agreement, the Economist wrote, “in any realistic scenario, emissions cannot be cut fast enough to keep the total stock of greenhouse gases sufficiently small to limit the rise in temperature successfully”.

Options for capturing carbon exist, but not at scale. We could plant more trees, apply carbon capture and storage to biomass power plants, exclude the deep-ploughing of fields in agricultural practices that release CO2 from the soil, or even geoengineer a cooler climate, but “[a]ll of them are very expensive, and none is proven at scale,” the Economist states.

Unless we develop new technologies for renewable energies and capturing CO2 at scale by incentivising businesses, the problem is far from over.

Article by Anrike Visser.
Illustration by Imad Gebrayel.
Editing by Laura Martin.

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